Do you dress up in lessons?

Written by: Gerald Haigh | Published:
Image: iStock

Would you consider dressing up in lessons? A lot of secondary teachers do, as Gerald Haigh has been discovering

I have an abiding love of cartoons, especially those which appeared in the late lamented Punch magazine. One favourite has a portly male teacher striding confidently into a science class wearing only a towel. Awaiting him is a large domestic bath almost full of water.

“Turn to page 18,” he barks over his shoulder, “Archimedes’ Principle.”

I thought of it straight away when I spotted a question on Twitter from author and teacher Sue Cowley (@Sue_Cowley): “Have you ever worn or used costumes to teach, and if yes, what were they and what was the learning you did?”

Teachers in costume? Human visual aids? Surely, in the current rather po-faced and didactic climate, that would be alarmingly close to the dangerous “fun” end of the pedagogic spectrum.
But not a bit of it. Tweeters, presumably as glad as I was to take a break from academisation, leaked test papers, and the rules of grammar, fell over themselves to tell Sue and her followers gleeful tales of dressing up.

Children, it seems, are routinely confronted by teachers disguised as deep-sea divers, pirates, the Pope, the Queen, the corpse of Thomas Beckett and, in one case, a 1950s teacher, with cap and gown.

I realise, of course, that in primary all this is routine, especially when World Book Day comes around.

As the replies to Sue rolled in, however, she tweeted: “Interestingly, I’m getting more answers to this from secondary teachers who have dressed up than from primary!”

In secondary it seems to be all about illustrating a particular curriculum topic – Thomas Beckett’s corpse (played by a PGCE student, presumably grateful for a lie down) is for year 7 history, and a science teacher dresses as Marie Curie. In a GCSE geography class, a teacher appears in 70s and then 80s clothes to show changing retail patterns, for a GCSE topic.

It is all lively stuff, but there really is a strong point being made here about student engagement.

As one teacher suggests in this same discussion thread: “A costume can be as much of a scene-setting hook as a book, video, soundscape or location.”

“In other words,” I thought, “It’s about grabbing their attention.”

But really, there’s more to it than that. The dramatic entrance, wearing a pirate outfit, or a papal three decker crown, or a towel and flip-flops, is the easy bit. The class sit bolt upright, drop their phones in astonishment, and you seize the moment, saying, “Arrr, settle ye down now my hearties,” or whatever. They look up expectantly -- “Okay Miss. Cool so far. What next?”

What indeed? Embarrassed cough and then back to reality? That doesn’t do it at all. As all of these dressers-up well know, the purpose of the exercise is to continue in-role, explaining, answering and encouraging questions, guiding trains of thought, using the teacher attributes of authority and knowledge.

And the killer point here is that in order to do this you really have to know your stuff. A teacher would be ill-advised, say, to go into class as Emmeline Pankhurst and expect to get by with roughly the right clothes and a few generalities about the Suffragette movement.

The more I think about that, I realise that to put on a costume and teach a lesson in character can be said to model what all good teaching looks like. The act of teaching, after all, is all about accepting the role of teacher and interpreting it with confidence and professional skill.

As one of Sue Cowley’s responders reminds us, teachers used to illustrate their status and scholarly credentials not with topic-specific costumes but with generic academic dress, a convention that continued to my knowledge well into the 1970s.

At that time, I taught in an urban comprehensive where every teacher wore an academic gown. We hung them in the staff cloakrooms and each morning took them down and wrapped ourselves in the outward and visible sign of our inward dignity and status. Not, I should say, that there was any discernible effect on the quality of our teaching.

The gowns have mostly gone now – good riddance say most – but a teacher undoubtedly still has a virtual costume to hand, a signature style of body language and utterance familiar to, and appreciated by, the students.

At the start of the lesson it helps to capture attention. After that, though, it has to be supported by the real expertise of pedagogic skill and deep subject knowledge. That, after all, is what students want and expect.

The message they give, sometimes in explicit terms is: “You’re our teacher; teach us. You took on the role; now live up to it!”

Finally, I offer, without comment except that it has the authentic ring of truth, the tweet to Sue from a female teacher who never dresses up: “...but some days my class says: Miss, what ARE you wearing...?”

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1

Further information

Sue Cowley will be looking at the many ways in which teachers can teach artfully in her new book The Artful Educator, to be published by Crown House later this year.


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